Sectors: An analysis of Three Districts
(Ikebukuro, Shin-Otsuka)(Tokyo) / (The “Loop”) (Chicago)
Edges of the Neighborhoods
Tokyo and its environs can sometimes be hard to classify neatly. At certain moments, one might feel as though
the entire megalopolis has a uniformity - and at other times one discovers how truly different each corner of
the city actually is. There are many layers to be discovered even though the city presents a somewhat consistant
ideal. Much of Tokyo was built during the same epoch, and therefore, it shows a very contemporary face to the
world. But, in subtle ways, the city shows it’s diversity - culturally, socially, and economically. Given this, it begs
the question, what makes Tokyo the city that it is, and how do these characteristics compare with other places?
In an attempt to answer this question, I have chosen to compare three diff erent districts - two from Tokyo, and
one from the city of Chicago. The neighborhoods I have chosen are Shin-Otuska, Ikebukuro, and the Chicago
“Loop”. The format of this paper is presented in small chunks that compare each district on a particular quality,
with adjunct photos.
Ikebukuro is a vibrant, large-scale pleasure and shopping district in the northwest corner of Tokyo that is very
commercial, and divided in half into East/West sections. The West section is focused on entertainment, and the
East section is focused on retail. It is a small city within the gigantic metropolis. It is not necessarily a focus for
tourists but it is certainly a destination for the Japanese, and also for Chinese immigrants.
Shin-Otsuka is a quieter residential and lightly commercial neighborhood slightly northwest of central Tokyo.
It is a middle-class Japanese neighborhood, with very few outsiders or tourists within it’s boundaries. There
are mainly single family houses in this district, but there are also some larger apartment structures. Retail and
shopping exists but only on the main avenues - and the establishments there serve their adjacent community.
The Chicago Loop is a bustling area in central downtown. It is a highly active area with commercial and some
entertainment zones but it is not on the same level of compression or intensity as Ikebukuro. The scale of the
buildings in the Loop are diff erent from the other two Japanese neighborhoods, and that is because, in general,
the skyscraper is the most prominent type of structure here. It might be slightly comparable to the Marunouchi
area of Tokyo, with its more austere corporate facades. However, it diff ers from that because it is a very diverse
area - nearby Millennium Park is very large and attracts many visitors and tourists, and there are some shopping
districts here as well.
Fig. 1 - General qualities of the three neighborhoods compared.
Edges of the Neighborhoods: (Maps zoomed to 1 unit = 200 meters)
Ikebukuro is bordered by the rail lines (A highway and the JR Yamanote rail line on the north) and highways
and the Fukutoshin subway line on the west / south sides. The east side is less clearly defined and extends like a
finger all the way to the western edge of Shin-Otsuka.
Shin-Otsuka is bounded by an expressway at the west and a main arterial road at the east, and parkland at the
south, while the north boundary is very “fuzzy”.
The Chicago Loop is defined by the Chicago River at the North and West, the shores of Lake Michigan at the
East, and the Southern edge is defined by the La Salle Street corridor, which is an exit corridor for the 290
expressway that ends just to the west.
At closer inspection, it appears that the denser urban areas such as Ikebukuro and The Loop have more definite
areas because their edges are strongly defined by infrastructural elements or natural edges, whereas the
residential edges are much less defi nite, having a sawtooth edge quality. This may be due to the lack of a clear
Fig. 2 - The edges of each neighborhood are defined differently
Scale: (Maps zoomed to 1 unit = 50 meters)
Ikebukuro contains mostly mid-rise buildings, a few skyscrapers, but tends to lack smaller structures. Because it
is not a corporate zone, the focus is not on skyscrapers (such as it is in Otemachi), and the district is not nearly
as dense as Shibuya. The larger buildings tend to be department stores or mall structures.
Shin-Otsuka has a much smaller scale than Ikebukuro and it is not as tightly compact as some areas in Tokyo.
Houses tend to be larger, and sit on (relatively) more generous plots of land, which is unusual for the city.
This probably is due to the income level of the area, which is higher than most. Some larger scale apartment
buildings and commercial buildings exist at the main street “hard edges” and the Shin-Otsuka subway station
street intersection, but they are not the norm.
The superblocks in the Chicago Loop dwarf the Tokyo scale of building subdivision, especially the Shin-Otsuka
neighborhood. The superblock as a concept, existed in several historic cities (including Beijing and London)
and, in America as early as 1682 in the Penn and Holmes Philadelphia Plan. By 1811, New York’s superblocks
had also taken shape. It wasn’t until the Early 20th century that the superblock became a more standardized
planning element, bolstered by the automobile as a justifi cation, and Le Corbusier’s Ville Radieuse city plan.
Tokyo, specifically does not ascribe to this type of planning technique because of the constant subdivision
of lands that took place over the course of centuries. The parcels of land were split apart in the interest of
economics and profi table endeavors, sometimes resulting in a chaotic substructure.
Fig. 3 - Scalar qualities of the block divisions of each neighborhood
Planning: (Maps zoomed to 1 unit = 10 meters)
In Ikebukuro, planning is semi-regularized. Some sections are partially gridded, with wide streets running
between them. City blocks are larger, but the plot size of many buildings is not that much larger than other
areas in Tokyo. More verticality exists here.
In Shin-Otsuka, much of the residential area is laid out on a grid, but portions of it have “medieval” or “fractal”
qualities because of the level of subdivision. Roland Barthe’s idea of “hard edges” (taller buildings at the main
streets) and “soft yolks” (residential block structures which are lower inside them) exists here but on a smaller
scale than other areas of Tokyo.
The Chicago Loop is laid out on a large scale mega-grid. Many skyscrapers, including the Willis Tower (formerly
the Sears Tower) sit inside the urban grid of streets. In comparison to Tokyo, Chicago is highly regularized,
there are few deviations from the gridded urban streets. Also, the scale of the superblocks is highly apparent in
the corresponding slides, which are all the same scale.
As a side note, the Seismic requirements in Tokyo tend to keep buildings lower (and if they are taller, they are
more structurally robust.) Some of the larger-scale megastructures in Chicago would be economically difficult
to achieve in Tokyo, which is why most taller buildings in Tokyo are mid-rises. Despite Tokyo’s verticality, there
is a restraint to some of the urban development.
Fig. 4 - Planning is variegated in Tokyo, but regularized in Chicago
Ikebukuro is situated at a high elevation compared to the surrounding areas – it sits on a bit of a plateau that
defines the outskirts of the district, at approximately 65 meters above sea level. During the Edo period, these
higher zones would have been locations for Samurai palaces and aristocracy because they were safe from
Shin-Otsuka is lower than Ikebukuro but still 35 meters above sea level. Also, it is more topologically diverse
than Ikebukuro – it is quite hilly in certain parts.
In contrast, Chicago and the Loop are very flat. Sea level is somewhat irrelevant since it’s not near the sea, but
the lake level fluctuates and flooding can be an issue at times. Tokyo’s varied topography means that in higher
zones, there are “vistas” to be had, and planning methods take this into account. In the Loop, the vistas you
might see would be urban skylines (as viewed from a river canal corridor or from the park) or the lake front at
the water’s edge.
Fig. 5 - Topography is quite differential in Tokyo, but nearly flat in Chicago
Ikebukuro has a wide spread demographic but it is considered somewhat trendy - especially the west side which
has a younger, freewheeling vibe to it (perhaps because of the large entertainment district there.) There is
also a large Chinese population – there is a focus here for Chinese Immigrants, which has risen sharply since
the 1980’s due to China’s reforms and policies (according to Kiyomi Yamashita, professor of ethnic studies at
Tsukuba University.) There is even a small dispute brewing as to whether or not there will be a need to develop
a “China Town” in Ikebukuro. Today, the large existing Chinese social infrastructure is appealing to those just
arriving in Tokyo.
Shin-Otsuka contains mostly professional and middle-aged citizens and families who are attracted to its quiet
and safe environs. Shin-Otsuka houses almost exclusively Japanese citizens, but there are some foreigners there
The Chicago Loop is a mix of middle and upper class residential folded into a heavy commercial area. It is a
quite mixed and racially diverse area, including lots of foreign tourists. Because there are many office towers
and skyscrapers as well, a mix of older and young people meet, work and play here. In comparison to Tokyo,
the Loop might be more demographically diverse, but that could be due to the overall qualities of the citycore
that attract tourism, both local and international. In Ikebukuro and Shin-Otsuka, a decidedly Japanese
urban environ still dominates, perhaps because other neighborhoods (such as Roppongi) have been hotbeds
for foreigners to congregate.
Fig. 6 - Demographics vary between the neighborhoods
Ikebukuro has a well-coordinated infrastructure. A lack of conspicuous electrical poles prevents a marring of
the scenery as in other areas in Tokyo, although they do exist in some places. Wide streets, open plazas, and
even a formal boulevard that radiates from the east side of the train station enhance the commercial feel. There are wide
sidewalks in some areas, which is a rarity in Tokyo. A highway structure also runs along the west, an
arterial route that is exposed as a barrier element in the city.
Shin-Otsuka has good infrastructure, but an exposed electrical grid is a bit unsightly and uncoordinated - this
is typical of Tokyo’s smaller scale urban areas. Narrow sidewalks and streets dominate the area, which help
maximize the block structure.
The Chicago Loop’s infrastructure is not entirely visible. Chicago is highly planned and most utilities function
out of sight and out of mind. However, the one piece of infrastructure that is wholly visible is the train line - the
“Loop”, which lends the neighborhood its name. The Loop is, perhaps, Chicago’s version of Tokyo’s elevated
expressways through the city. Two of the train lines run above ground here, and form a ring that is concentric
to the downtown grid. Here, the train lines are not a barrier, like the highway in Ikebukuro, but rather, it is a
connective transportation element that reinforces interconnectivity.
Fig. 7 - Infrastructure is either visible or not - there are varied methodologies.
Subways and rail lines are central to life in Tokyo. Ikebukuro has one of the largest and busiest trains stations the
city and it runs super efficiently. JR (above ground) and Metro (subway) are both centrally located in the heart
of the district. Despite this, you may have to walk a bit to get where you are going once you arrive.
The main hub for Shin-Otsuka is the Metro Station which is centrally located. There is a stop on the JR line at
Otsuka, which is further north (at the edge) of this neighborhood, .6 km meters away (.37 miles) Again, a bit of
a walk exists for those who wish to take these lines as they are not always nearby for residents.
In the loop, there are both above and below ground rail lines, and several stations are scattered around. The
“Loop” (once again) stands for the elevated train loop that runs through the city streets. Less walking is required
in this district than in Tokyo to reach your destination because stations are more frequently located on the
elevated track and the subway.
Fig. 8 -Trains are centralized in Tokyo but concentric in the “Loop”
Ikebukuro has many types of business establishments. The choices are wide and varied, and not as focused on
higher-end shopping like Ginza. In the West half pleasure and entertainment dominate, hosting students from
the local universities, people from all over Tokyo, and flocks of younger people. This area is a bit grainy, less
refined and is the subject of an edgy television show which focuses on the messy lives of certain inhabitants.
In the East half, fashion outlets and department stores congregate for a slightly more formal and sophisticated
crowd. However, there is a focused area of intense activity in Higashiikebukuro with restaurants and fun that is
very crowded. Sunshine City, Seibu, and Tobu are the main shopping hotspots.
In Shin-Otsuka, there are plenty of Konbini (convenience stores), smaller family-owned businesses, and larger
grocery chains, such as LIFE. Shopping is not necessarily a focus here, but the everyday businesses cater to the
needs of the local inhabitants.
In the Chicago Loop, there is a mix similar to Ikebukuro with many shopping areas, some entertainment spots,
but there is no “zone” for these activities – it is mixed into the city in and around the superblocks. There are wide
streets which are sometimes closed off for the frequent fairs and markets that pop up. Convenience stores are
not quite as omnipresent as Tokyo, but they do exist in large quantities. There is a mix of small, large, and very
large businesses. Most “service” industry business is on the street level, whereas in Tokyo you frequently see
advertisements for businesses on the upper floors of buildings. The scale of Tokyo makes this a viable option,
as 6 or 7 flights is a “walkable” distance if there are no elevators. In the Loop, this does not exist. Most buildings
have lobbies with directories that you can peruse to see what businesses operate there and what level they are
located on, and they are accessible by elevator.
Fig. 9 - Varied levels of amenities
In Ikebukuro, a lack of exclusively green spaces means the focus is placed mostly on the shopping and pleasure
districts. Ikebukuro-nishiguchi Park on the West Side is less of a park than a flat piece of paved land that is open
for “hanging around”.
In Shin-Otsuka, there are many green spaces and tree-lined streets. Kyoikunomori Park, and Otsuka Park are
nearby, as well as the Gokokuji Temple site, mentioned earlier.
Millennium Park, a well-known tourist attraction is a focus within the “Loop” neighborhood. Compared to the
parks in Tokyo, it is less contemplative, and more whimsical. While Tokyo’s parks are revered for “man-made”
natural beauty, that is a secondary focus at Millennium park. The primary focus is a diverse range of spaces and
activities within the park. The scale of it is very large and very open although there are some intimate moments
like there would be in a garden in Tokyo. In Chicago, the city is not “integrated” with the parkland as it is in Tokyo. The parkland was planned to be a lake front heritage site, so it was designed as a retainer and setback for the natural water’s edge, pushing away the
dense cityscape that sits behind it. In this regard, the park is both pleasurable and utilitarian.
Fig. 10 -Different ideals for parks within each neighborhood
The temples in Tokyo are specific to eastern worship, traditional-looking, and have a high level of craftsmanship.
I mention this separately as a category because I believe that this particular element is something that can be
interpreted as “Japanese”. There is a high amount of care taken to establish these as “refuges” from the city.
In Ikebukuro, Honryuji Temple (east) is the largest Temple and it is not centrally located.
In Shin-Otsuka, Gokokuji Temple exists – one of the oldest in Tokyo (a surviving Edo period building), setback
and distinguished by a large park and by Zoshigaya cemetery. It is not central, but it is certainly more “official”
than Honryuji Temple.
In the Chicago Loop, there exists mostly Christian churches, even a Jewish temple, (as well as a few other
denominations) and perhaps most notably the Seventeenth Church of Christ which is a well-known piece of
modern architecture. I bring this up because it is a very different statement compared to the traditional style
of temples in Tokyo. Here, it seems, there is more of a focus on providing options for religious services, and
perhaps, even modernizing these services.
Fig. 11 -Worship Structures in each neighborhood
Tokyo is a city that lights up intensely at night, and Ikebukuro is no exception to this. It is very bright at times
and also visually “noisy”. There are many loud colors and lots of wares being advertised. Competition for your
attention seems quite fierce.
Shin-Otsuka is much darker at night than Ikebukuro (being a residential area) but it has occasional flashes of
the brighter areas of Tokyo at main intersections and large arterial streets. Nothing on the level of visual assault
like Ikebukuro, however.
The Chicago Loop can be austere – signage tends to be more subdued for buildings except in specific areas.
Many establishments and buildings own the entire block, and as mentioned earlier, the multi-level office spaces
have directories in the lobby as opposed to reading signage from the street. Sometimes you will see signs in
the windows - but this is infrequent. In Tokyo, advertising is much more overt because of the verticality of the
business layouts. In the Loop, the brightest signs and lights can usually been seen at the street level only.
Fig. 12 - Signage, or lack thereof in each neighborhood
Tokyo has an organic quality to the way it operates, despite the fact that it was also formed with certain disciplines
in mind. Urban theorist Fumihiko Maki touched on these aspects in his 1964 paper entitled Investigations Into
Collective Form. In it, he mentions how urban societies “evolve” and compose themselves into groups of buildings
that have reasons to be together. To my mind, this is how much of Tokyo operates. Ikebukuro is a collection of
pleasure and shopping buildings all in one place, and Shin-Otsuka is a somewhat residential district in the city.
These clusters of buildings create meaning with one another, they each form a nexus of interest. Chicago’s Loop,
on the other hand, is much more of a “mixture” of urban qualities and demographics.
Ikebukuro has density and intensity and a noisy visual quality that is different than the other two neighborhoods,
but it is also slightly homogeneous in some ways. Competition for attention in Ikebukuro seems to drive much
of the way things operate there, but the Japanese themselves do not embody this aspect - rather, the way of life
here seems to represent a more collective ideal, expressed socially. Shin-Otsuka is much more understated, not
as homogeneous, and not flashy in any regard but perhaps a bit more individualistic– good for family life since
it is away from the action (an attractive quality.) The Chicago loop is not as excessive or wild as Ikebukuro,
but the range of architecture there is a substantial treasure. Architecture has always been part of the heritage
of Chicago, from the birth of the skyscraper and the Chicago window to now, with the architecture becoming
increasingly diverse, gaining a contemporized ideal.
The uniqueness of Tokyo is a result of the social, economic, and political forces that have shaped it. In a certain
regard, hi-tech has met happenstance with the rapidity of development in Tokyo. It would also be prudent
to point out the compressive forces that have bound Japan as an island nation, for they have shaped Tokyo’s
development. Tokyo has a modern, expressionistic desire that looks towards the future while pausing to refl ect
on the past, utilizing the realities of now. It has managed to retain a sense of heritage but somehow leap forward
at the same time. It is this dichotomy that makes the city what it is: an evolving metropolis.
(All other images taken by AJ Rosales)
- Google Maps / Topography